Caviar may be "cool" now, but that wasn't always the case.
According to Nichola Fletcher, European historian and author of the book Caviar: A Global History, it suffered a plague of distaste among American fishermen who called it a "stinking nuisance.”
If German fishermen weren't leaving it to rot, they were feeding it to their pigs.
A few centuries later, the once despised caviar has now become a world-renowned delicacy.
Which begs the question: what is so special about caviar?
What is caviar?
Before we get into how caviar became the most sought-after and high-valued culinary product of the sea, let's get clear on just what exactly it is.
The term caviar has long been used to refer to the eggs of other fish.
However, the US Food and Drug Administration has made it clear that true caviar originates exclusively from sturgeon.
The name itself has a muddled origin. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests the name came from either the Italian caviale or the medieval Greek khaviari.
Inga Saffron, American journalist and author of Caviar, asserts that the English name went through several pronunciations and spellings before caviar was reached. The Russians however call caviar ikra, which means fish roe.
(Any fish egg, such as those from salmon, trout, flying fish, and other species, is referred to as roe.)
How did caviar become a delicacy?
According to Saffron, the first instance of caviar being served as a delicacy dates back to 1240.
Bhatu Khan, a powerful warrior like his grandfather Genghis, had just taken control of Moscow and all of central Russia at this time.
To welcome the new warlord, Russians living inside the Christian Orthodox monastery threw a feast with a variety of delicacies, including a roasted sturgeon and a regional specialty of hot apple preserve coated with salted sturgeon egg (aka caviar).
Four centuries after Bhatu Khan's welcome feast, the Russian Orthodox Church began to
recognize eggs as a devout food that may be consumed during times of fasting when meat was prohibited. (This is most likely how caviar came to be associated with Russia.)
Fletcher writes that when Peter the Great assumed power in 1696, he promoted cultural interchange between Russians and foreigners through St. Petersburg, the cultural hub he built.
Ioannis Varvakis, a Greek sea captain, later leveraged the open trade opportunity and built a successful fishing business.
Varvakis’s successful fishing business accelerated caviar’s transformation from a little known Russian dish to a treat for the European and upper class of the Western world.
How is caviar made?
All wild sturgeons are anadromous. This means they grow up in the sea and migrate to a river a month before spawning. It is during this period they are caught and harvested for caviar.
(This spawning period is crucial as the eggs must reach a certain maturity before they can be processed into caviar.)
Here is the traditional process as outlined by Fletcher:
After the female sturgeons are caught, they're knocked unconscious.
The fish is sliced open through the abdominal region and the eggs are extracted.
The eggs are washed, drained, then salted.
And after salting, the eggs are packed firmly and airtight into tins.
Killing the fish after extracting its eggs is used to be the standard practice of the traditional process but risk of overfishing resulted in a transition to the method above.
And while a single female sturgeon may carry millions of eggs in its belly, scientists say only a handful will survive into adulthood.
For this reason, sturgeons are listed as endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Sturgeon farmers are now exploring no-kill methods to harvest caviar in order to promote sustainable and less violent fishing of sturgeon.
One of the methods called the C-section method involves making a small cut on the stomach area of the fish and stitching the spot back after extracting the eggs.
Another is the Vivace method, developed by German scientist Angela Köhler. This involves injecting the fish with a hormone that triggers their urge to release eggs and then massaging the eggs out of the fish.
Both methods allow sturgeon farmers to use the same fish to harvest roe more than once, allowing for sustainable and humane caviar production.
What are the types of sturgeon caviar?
There are many varieties of sturgeon caviar. Each one has a distinct taste, texture, and flavor.
Here are three well-known varieties:
Beluga caviar: Also called Huso huso and native to the Caspian Sea, Beluga is the largest and oldest species of sturgeon. As it has become rare due to overfishing, its egg is the most expensive with prices ranging from $7,000 to $10,000 per kilogram.
Sevruga caviar: The smallest of the caviar varieties, Sevruga caviar is fragile with a mild texture and delivers a robust buttery flavor sensation. It can cost up to $4,000 per kilogram.
Osetra caviar: The third in the category of the most expensive caviar, it has small eggs with a soft texture and dark color. One kilogram of the Osetra caviar can cost up to $4,500.
In addition to its type, caviar is also categorized based on how they were processed.
What are categories of harvested caviar?
According to the University of Florida Fishery department, there are four major commercial categories of processed caviar (the first three of which are a product of traditional caviar making):
Malossol caviar: this type contains 3-4% salt and is the most common.
Salted caviar: produced using the same method as the first but has a salt level of 10-12% for a longer shelf-life.
Pressed caviar: pressed caviar is a third category often made from low-quality eggs—eggs that are mixed in color and are too soft. They have an oily texture and are mushy.
Ovulated egg caviar: The fourth category involves a recently developed process where the fish isn't killed but stripped of its egg while alive.
(Here at Rockefeller, we serve Siberian Malossol caviar.)
Why is caviar so expensive?
Caviar is expensive for two reasons:
It’s rare. It takes about 8-20 years before female sturgeons reach maturity (i.e. before they can produce caviar).
It’s expensive to produce. Because sturgeons are listed as endangered species, fishermen and caviar producers no longer capture wild sturgeons but are now forced to farm them. Raising sturgeon requires a significant upfront investment, which impacts caviar’s price.
The best ways to eat caviar
Caviar can be eaten as an appetizer, or as the main course of a meal.
Blinis and creme fraiche
Just your hand (aka caviar “bumps”)
House made potato chips (wink wink, nudge nudge)
When serving caviar, be sure to use an inert material such as mother-of-pearl, glass, pure gold, or horn (you know, things you absolutely don’t just have lying around).
Any sort of metal besides pure gold will impact the caviar’s flavor.